NASA’s Hidden Figures Helped Us Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

Editor’s Note: This repost from 2016 is in honor of one of the hidden figures of NASA, Katherine Johnson (August 26, 1918-February 24, 2020).

The little-known contribution of mathematicians who happened to be African American women is the subject of a new movie illustrating just how far we’ve come.

A new episode of the Amazon series American Girl titled “Melody 1963: Love Has to Win” begins with the title character fantasizing about being an astronaut. There’s just one problem: It’s 1963 and Melody is black. And most people – her friends, school mates and even her own grandfather – don’t believe that an African-American child could ever be an astronaut. Only Melody’s mother encourages her dreams – even after learning that her hair dryer had been converted into a space helmet.

Few people know that a group of real-life Melodies defied the earth-bound biases of society and had successful careers with NASA – not as astronauts, but as mathematicians. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are three of these women. Their stories are told in the new movie “Hidden Figures,” starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.

NASA Director A First Because Of the Agency’s Hidden Figures

NASA Director Charles Bolden was among those who didn’t know. He only learned about Johnson and the other women in 2015.

NASA Director Charles Bolden
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden pauses for a moment in Building AE at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after having watched and celebrated the Orion spacecraft splash down in the Pacific Ocean more than three hours after the spacecraft launched onboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 37, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Orion spacecraft orbited Earth twice, reaching an altitude of approximately 3,600 miles above Earth before landing. No one was aboard Orion for this flight test, but the spacecraft is designed to allow us to journey to destinations never before visited by humans, including an asteroid and Mars. Photo credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

“I was blown away by the story of this incredible woman and how even as a little girl, her talent was recognized,” Bolden told Message by email. Bolden himself holds a unique place in NASA history. In 2009, he was appointed to be the agency’s first African-American director.

But like Johnson and the other women featured in ‘Hidden Figures” his achievements came despite bigoted low expectations. United States Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was one of Bolden’s doubters. Bolden, a South Carolina native, wanted Thurmond to recommend him for an appointment to the Naval Academy.

“No way are you going to get an appointment from me to go to the Naval Academy,” Bolden recalled Thurmond telling him during an interview with NPR. “It was clear why they were not supporting me and it was because of the times. They were just not about to appoint a black to the Naval Academy or to any Academy.”

Bolden didn’t give up. He reached out to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, with whom he had been corresponding during his junior year in high school. Johnson went to work on Bolden’s behalf. The future Marine Corps pilot and NASA astronaut eventually got his Naval Academy recommendation from Congressman William Dawson of Chicago.

On Being The First

Bolden believes that NASA has made tremendous progress regarding gender and racial equity. His own appointment as agency director is proof of that. But he knows that all isn’t perfect at NASA.

“The victories for racial and gender rights were not achieved easily or quickly,” he said. “Our work is not done.”

Audrey Robinson, Marshall Space Flight Center
Audrey Robinson is the first African American woman to be named chief counsel at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Alabama. Robinson is the first African American woman to hold the post in any of NASAs centers.

Audrey Robinson agrees. She, like Bolden, became part of NASA history in 2011 when she was named Chief Counsel for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama. She was the first black female in all of NASA’s centers to receive this appointment.

“There are many meetings and things that I go to where I am the only black or the only female,” Robinson told Message. “And sometimes the only black and female in the room when I look around.”

Of course, Robinson’s path to NASA was easier than the one walked decades earlier by the women of “Hidden Figures.” She was accepted into the agency’s Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program (SHARP) in the early 1980s while a student at Oakwood Adventist Academy. After graduation, she remained at MSFC as a summer intern. After graduating from Oakwood University (then Oakwood College) in 1986, Robinson started working full-time at MSFC as a materials engineer. She also went to graduate school, eventually earning a Master’s in Management and a law degree. Before serving as MSFC’s Chief Counsel, Robinson was the Director of the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity at the center. Both roles undoubtedly have added to her awareness about of the importance of NASA having an inclusive environment – and the burdens that Johnson and the other pioneering black females have had to bear.

Women Of Strong Constitution

“They had to be women of strong constitution who had confidence and belief and faith in themselves,” Robinson said. “I’m sure that they had a community of support and their families because they couldn’t have done and accomplished what they did if they didn’t have all of that around them.”

NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson
NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson was a pioneer who helped to create the complicated calculations that made space travel possible.

An interview with the History Makers website confirms this. Katherine Johnson, the pioneering mathematician said that her father moved their family 125 miles from their family home to Institute, West Virginia, specifically so she and her siblings could go to school.

Johnson excelled in math and graduated from West Virginia High School at 14. She earned degrees in French and mathematics from West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College). She also pursued graduate studies in advanced mathematics before joining America’s space program in 1953. She worked as a research mathematician for the Langley Research Center, which was part of NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

By the time NACA became NASA in 1958, Johnson was doing the math that made space travel possible. She plotted the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s 1961 flight on a Mercury spacecraft that went 116 miles high and lasted a bit more than 15 minutes. Shepard was the first American to fly in space. Her calculations helped John Glenn orbit the Earth in 1962. They also allowed Apollo 11 to make its historic moon landing in 1969.

Janeene Sams-Suttle
Mathematician Janeene Sams-Suttle, Marshall Space Flight Center, is one of 1,207 black women currently working for NASA.

Uhura and Beyond

Currently, NASA employs 1,207 black women. Nearly 300 are engineers, scientists, mathematicians or information technologists. Jeneene Sams-Suttle is one of the agency’s many mathematicians. She is the Safety and Assurance Risk Manager at MSFC. Her data analysis mitigates risks for NASA’s missions. Though she is not calculating to support flight paths or moon landings, it’s not likely she would have her job had the women of Hidden Figures not paved the way.

“As a young girl, I would look at Star Trek and see Uhura,” Sams-Suttle told Message. “I would look at that and think, ‘I could do that. I could do that.’”

Communications officer Nyota Uhura was the lone black character on Star Trek when the iconic series made its television debut in 1966. She was portrayed by Nichelle Nichols, one of the first African-American TV actresses in a role that defied racial stereotypes. But Sams-Shuttle wasn’t the only one inspired by Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was, too. Nichols told NPR that she met him at an NAACP fundraiser during the show’s first season. King told her that Star Trek was the only show he and Mrs. King allowed their children to watch. Nichols told King that she wished she could be on the frontlines with him and the other civil rights protestors. She said King corrected her.

“You are marching,” Nichols recalled King saying. “You are reflecting what we are fighting for.”

So were Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. So are Charles Bolden, Audrey Robinson, Jeneene Sams-Suttle and hundreds of other blacks at NASA. And one day, a black child will learn about them and believe she can do it too.

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